Prime MINISTER Narendra Modi is to be commended for encouraging a tenaciously sea-blind nation to dwell on its considerable, but dismally under-developed maritime potential, and also reflect on the subcontinent’s rich maritime history. These strands were woven with characteristic flourish by Modi at the commissioning ceremony of India’s first indigenously designed and built aircraft carrier — INS Vikrant — in Kochi on September 2, and drew attention to a neglected page of Indian history.
At one point, the Bay of Bengal was referred to as a Chola lake. These slivers of history ought to have found mention in PM Modi’s speech.
‘From the Vedic period to the Gupta period and the Maurya period, India’s maritime power was well known all over the world. Chhatrapati Veer Shivaji Maharaj had built such a navy with this sea power that it would scare the enemies,’ Modi asserted, adding in relation to the new ensign for the Navy: ‘I dedicate this new flag to the father of the navy, Chhatrapati Veer Shivaji Maharaj.’
This genealogical halo is generous praise for the Maratha warrior-king who occupies a special niche in India’s medieval history. While experts may differ whether Maratha naval capabilities were more coastal than oceanic — an admiral in the Maratha navy, Kanhoji Angre (1669-1729), was a doughty sea-warrior and his small vessels were perhaps the earliest instance of the use of swarm tactics at sea to ward off a more powerful adversary – in this case, the Portuguese. In a rare tribute for its time, an early 20th century British historian, CA Kinkaid, describes Angre as being ‘Victorious alike over the English, the Dutch and the Portuguese, he sailed the Arabian Sea in triumph.’
The Maratha chapter of history has been nurtured by the Navy by way of naming a major shore establishment in Mumbai as INS Angre and INS Shivaji in Lonavla, the premier engineering training base.
During the same period, there was a kingdom in Kerala — that of the Zamorins — which invested in naval power. They enlisted the Marakkars who trace their ancestry to Egypt to provide the naval muscle to protect Zamorin interests at sea and were remarkably successful. As Admiral Arun Prakash, former Naval Chief, points out: ‘By waging a campaign against Portuguese dominance at sea for nearly a century, the Zamorins and Marakkars played a sterling role in keeping them off balance, and forcing them to move north into Goa.’ The Navy has a shore establishment named INS Kunjali (after the last Marakkar admiral) in Mumbai.
Modi’s reference to the Maurya period is pertinent. There is considerable evidence of trade between the Mauryan empire (325-180 BC) with distant Rome. Historian Pliny refers to the coffers of imperial Rome being emptied by the increasing import of silk and spices from the subcontinent. Much of this has been documented by historians.
Another dynasty is that of the Andhra-Satavahanas (circa 200 BC-180 AD). Their maritime reach was impressive for its time. But regrettably, we do not have accurate historical records of their naval battles.
In the first millennium AD, the Chola empire (circa 900-1200) expanded its reach from modern Tamil Nadu-Karnataka to Southeast Asia and some Indian Ocean islands, and had an ocean-going navy to protect its trade and expand the empire. At one point, the Bay of Bengal was referred to as a Chola lake. These slivers of history ought to have found mention in Modi’s speech.
While India’s ancient and medieval history has been distorted and selectively interpreted by the colonial rulers, in the 75 years post 1947, the ecosystem that enables the irrigation of research and scholarship, such that history is progressively internalised as national heritage, has remained elusive.
In their complex and occasionally uneven trajectory of nation-building, the state elite identify significant historical events and imbue them with a narrative that is progressively burnished. Specific to the maritime domain, two disparate instances are illustrative.
British primacy in global affairs and its colonial empire was sustained by its naval acumen. In the course of its many wars with the major European powers – France in particular – the Battle of Trafalgar (1805) was deemed seminal in establishing British supremacy. One strand was burnished over the decades by way of the persona of Admiral Lord Nelson. In recalling his courage in leading his fleet to victory, we note the manner in which, from childhood onwards, the average British citizen is made aware of one page of history, and how this is transmuted into an intangible sense of national pride.
China was also subjected to colonial exploitation and in its resolve to recall its rich past as part of the national effort to overcome a ‘century of humiliation’, Beijing turned to its maritime past. Eunuch admiral Zhen He (1371-1433), who incidentally died in Zamorin’s Kozhikode, was resurrected as a symbol of China’s maritime past. A burnished narrative published in 2002, titled ‘1421: The Year China Discovered the World’, by a former British naval officer, Gavin Menzies, is now part of the Chinese story.
India has chosen the Shivaji-Angre chapter to be prioritised in its maritime history. The history-heritage transmutation is complex and dominant political compulsions shape an objective recall of historical episodes and rigorous research. That is why a Kunjali may not receive the same degree of endorsement but the recall ought to be more expansive and factual.
To realise the Modi vision, including maritime history in school and college curriculum would be desirable, but it is not easy. Given the Centre-state demarcation of education, many regional sensitivities come into play, but introducing a national maritime history syllabus with relevant regional focus could be a first step.
Whether Satavahana, Chola or Maratha, each of these long-neglected periods in Indian history needs to be rediscovered and objectively recalled for a new generation which has a blurred recall of even August 1947.
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